Capitol Alert

Assisted suicide bill heads to Jerry Brown

Dan Diaz, whose wife brought national attention to the physician-assisted death movement before dying last year, stood at the back of Senate chambers Friday – the bill he championed about to pass but its ultimate prospects still unclear.

“(Jerry) Brown’s the big question,” said Diaz, the widower of Brittany Maynard. “He hasn’t given us an indication one way or another.”

Following a 23-14 vote in the Senate, Brown will now decide whether to sign or veto legislation to let doctors prescribe life-ending drugs to people with terminal illnesses.

Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, has declined to state a position on the measure. His office released a statement last month criticizing the use of a special legislative session to advance the bill outside of the normal legislative process.

The Democratic governor rarely comments on pending litigation, but Diaz noted that the criticism came from a spokeswoman – not Brown himself – and he said he “would like to think it was simply a comment about the procedural stuff.”

The Senate passed the bill on the final day of the legislative session, after the lower house moved it earlier this week. Because the bill was passed in a special session, Brown will have 12 days to act once his office receives the bill.

Advocates called the measure an act of compassion for people afflicted by terminal illnesses. The bill included language limiting assisted death to patients predicted to die within six months and requiring approval from multiple physicians.

In an emotional debate lasting more than an hour, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said the bill would help “eliminate the needless pain and the long suffering of those who are dying,” while Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, called choices at the end of life a fundamental right.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said that of the hundreds of bills that run through the Legislature each year, there are few that “impact us so profoundly as a bill like this.”

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate over the objections of many Republicans.

Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, called the bill “assisted killing.” He and other opponents of the bill said they feared the availability of physician-assisted death would exert pressure on frail and elderly people to end their lives to avoid burdening others.

Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, said diagnoses of terminal illness are sometimes wrong, and Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, said his vote against the bill was “a stand for the dignity of life.”

The legislation was modeled on a law enacted in Oregon in 1997. Washington and Vermont have since legalized assisted death.

In a major lift for the California legislation, the California Medical Association adopted a neutral position after years of opposition. But the Catholic Church and organizations representing oncologists and the disabled lobbied against the bill.

Despite a national campaign centered around Maynard, proponents of the assisted death bill failed earlier this year to move the legislation out of the Assembly Health Committee. By reintroducing the measure in a special session, they circumvented that committee.

Last year, Brown called Maynard, a Bay Area woman with brain cancer, days before she died. Maynard had traveled to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s law.

Diaz has declined to discuss specifics of their conversation, but he said Maynard pressed the governor on the issue.

Diaz said he could understand Brown’s concerns about legislative procedure, but he said terminally ill people – some of whom attended the hearing Friday – “don’t have the time for some legislative calendar to just match up perfectly.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders